Biden criticizes GOP governors over opposition to school mask mandates

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WASHINGTON — Educators should continue to resist Republican governors who have tried to ban mask mandates in schools, President Biden said in a White House address on Wednesday.

“Some politicians are trying to turn public safety measures — that is, children wearing masks in school — into political disputes for their own political gain,” Biden said, in an obvious reference to Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida, who has threatened to punish school districts and individual superintendents if they insist on making masks mandatory. Gov. Greg Abbott of Texas has issued a similar decree, although without the acrimony that has developed between Biden and DeSantis.

Without naming the governors, Biden said they were “setting a dangerous tone” by igniting what many public health officials see as a needless and harmful culture war. He specifically referred to a school board meeting in Williamson County, Tenn., at which raucous anti-mask protesters threatened doctors.

The new Superintendent of Schools for the Archdiocese of Miami, Jim Rigg (back of class), dances with students wearing masks on the first day in school at the St. Lawrence Catholic School, on Aug. 18, 2021.
Superintendent Jim Rigg (back of class) dances with students wearing masks on the first day in school at St. Lawrence Catholic School in North Miami Beach, Fla., on Wednesday. (Chandan Khanna/AFP via Getty Images)

“The intimidation and the threats we are seeing across the country are wrong. They’re unacceptable,” said the president, who has tried to defuse the intense culture wars surrounding the pandemic, which his predecessor, Donald Trump, was often happy to stoke. The Delta variant has complicated that goal, reviving many of the debates that lay dormant earlier this summer.

Nowhere have those debates been more ferocious than in school districts that want both children and adults to wear masks, in opposition to Republican governors who say that masking is a choice, and that educators have no right to make wearing them mandatory. In both Texas and Florida, which have some of the highest infection rates in the nation, large school districts have defiantly imposed such mandates as schools begin to open.

The Delta variant is much more transmissible than the earlier versions of the coronavirus, and more children have gotten infected — and hospitalized. Thousands of children in Florida are already under quarantine, imperiling the orderly reopening of schools there. Last year, DeSantis was celebrated widely for reopening schools when other governors struggled to do so in the face of opposition from teachers' unions.

Students wearing face masks arrive on the first day of classes for the 2021-22 school year at Baldwin Park Elementary School in Orlando, Fla.
Students arrive for the first day of class at Baldwin Park Elementary School in Orlando, Fla. (Paul Hennessy/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

This year, most Democratic governors have agreed with unions to reopen schools, with safety guidelines like universal masking in place. DeSantis, meanwhile, is facing condemnation for his resistance to masking, and this time not just from unions and their supporters.

Last week, the White House said it would try to support districts that are defunded, or superintendents and school board members whose pay is docked, as punishment for imposing mask mandates. It is not clear how the Biden administration intends to do so, although one possibility the president has considered is using unspent funds from the coronavirus relief package passed last winter.

“I’ll stand with those who do the right thing,” Biden said on Wednesday, just hours after Florida’s state education department moved to investigate a school district that imposed a mask mandate.

Biden added that he was instructing Education Secretary Michael Cardona to “take additional steps to protect our children. This includes using all of his oversight authorities and legal action if appropriate against governors trying to block and intimidate local school officials.”

He said he would address the return to school in greater detail next week.


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